By Alison Deplonty, MA Candidate, Department of Anthropology, University of Western Ontario
What do Top Gear, Ax Men, and Rodeo: Life on the Circuit have in common with Greatest Tank Battles, Lost Worlds, and Battle 360? They’re all programs on History Television. If you’re like me and you’re wondering what the former have to do with history, you’re not alone. What happened to the evenings of Digging for the Truth, Underworld Histories, and Patton 360? The History Television bio on Twitter says that they provide “entertaining programs that bring to life people and events from the past and history in the making.” Maybe the folks at History Television think that Around the World in 80 Ways, Ice Road Truckers, and similar programs depict history in the making, but I don’t—no matter how entertaining they may be.
Don’t get me wrong, I love watching History Television! I’ve spent hours watching M*A*S*H with my father, and programs like Digging for the Truth are part of the reason I decided to get involved with public history and archaeology. But another part of me is sad to see History Television’s emphasis on ‘reality TV’ programming lately.
It’s possible that History Television is trying to appeal to a broader audience and become more ‘family friendly’ with these ‘reality’ programs, and for shows like Hairy Bikers or Around the World in 80 Ways I might agree. But when it comes to Outlaw Bikers and Swamp People, I find this harder to believe. Especially when ‘family friendly’ programs like Beast Legends, haven’t been renewed. And their current programing appears to be directed towards a mostly ‘male’ audience.
Besides this turn towards ‘reality TV’ History Television is increasingly airing programs that depict more far-flung interpretations of history. Ancient Aliens, The Lost Book of Nostradamus, and Brad Meltzer’s Decoded may be loosely related to historical events or figures but they definitely depict ‘alternative’ versions of ‘history.’ And I’m not even including actual fiction programs, mini-series, and movies that are aired on the channel.
I’ve used examples from Canada’s History Television line-up, but the same kinds of programs are found on the History Channel in the United States. Unfortunately, much of the public’s understanding of history comes from mass media sources, like the shows aired on History Television, and not from professional historians or educators. However, one has to wonder about History Television’s ability to educate the public about the past if the focus is on ‘reality TV’ and ‘alternative’ interpretations of history.
If I was in charge of programming for History Television, what would I do? Put back the history! I’d say enough with the ‘reality TV’ and ‘alternative’ histories. I’d air history oriented programming during the day, not the middle of the night. You don’t have to run them all in primetime slots – you can leave those for newer shows like Museum Secrets or Battle Castle, but at least try to make primetime shows fit with your mandate.
And above all, don’t get rid of M*A*S*H.